How to Face Uncertainty at the End of the Pandemic

We're all eager for it to end. Here are ways to cope if it isn't so clear-cut.

Posted Jan 07, 2021

Radu Florin/Unsplash
We may all need to embrace some uncertainty as we approach the end of this pandemic.
Source: Radu Florin/Unsplash

The anticipated end of the COVID-19 pandemic may not be clear-cut—no big block letter headlines in all the newspapers (think a WAR IS OVER-type announcement). Instead, it will more likely be a prolonged, slow petering out with no clear ending date.

This seems a very probable scenario in that even once the vaccines become widely available, it may still be a while before life can return to normal (or something like it) for most people. There may be different safety recommendations coming out at different times, and possibly even some inconsistencies in this advice. There may be some people we know who get back to “normal” life pretty quickly, and some who continue to exercise a lot more caution. Depending on a lot of factors, what may be the right choice for one person may look a whole lot different for someone else.

If that is the way things play out, then we may be looking at a situation rife with ambiguity and uncertainty. In that period of transition, it might actually be pretty hard to judge the best way to do it. And when it comes to our health and safety, and the health and safety of our loved ones, not having a clear idea of what is “right” can be stressful.

In the anxiety literature, it’s known that more anxious people can have less tolerance for uncertainty or ambiguity in their lives. This phenomenon, called intolerance of uncertainty (IU), can cause distress and worry in situations where we can’t predict or control the outcomes. This trait varies quite a bit from one person to the next, as some people are extremely uncomfortable with uncertainty whereas others seem to be perfectly okay to just “roll with the punches” in life.

Where you fall on your ability to tolerate uncertainty likely depends on a number of factors, such as your trait anxiety levels or whether you have a lot of need for control. For some, high IU may result from going through a period in your life when you felt really out of control, for example, perhaps having a difficult home or school environment when you were a kid, or even experiencing a trauma. These kinds of events could lead to having lower tolerance for uncontrollable or unpredictable situations in other areas of your life, or automatically judging them to be negative.

Unfortunately for those of us high in IU, this year has had more than the usual amount of uncertainty. This could be related to your health status (e.g., “Have I been exposed?”, “Could I unknowingly be exposing others?”); and given the potentially drawn-out incubation period of COVID-19, there may have been a lot of waiting around to see if you developed symptoms after a potential exposure. Beyond our health, there has been a lot of uncertainty in the environment as well. Many of us have experienced uncertainty about employment, access to resources (e.g., “Will there be enough food at the grocery store?"), and not knowing if schools would be held in person this year.  

In fact, research has shown that this pandemic has already taken a substantial psychological toll. A large national study recently compared the mental health of college students just prior to the pandemic with mental health during the pandemic. According to this research, there was increased risk of depression, disordered eating patterns, and problematic alcohol use (though the latter was only true of women) during the pandemic versus before. Furthermore, it’s likely that these problems may take a long time to subside, even once the global pandemic is for the most part over.

And if there is no clear-cut ending, with no definitive knowledge on when (and how) it’s safe to fully resume our lives, some of us may struggle with that, too. That is, your ability to tolerate uncertainty may play a big role in how you cope with transitioning back out into the world. As mentioned above, a lack of clarity about what is the “right” thing to do could be very distressing to those of us who prefer things to be very cut and dried.

What can we do to cope?

While many of us would like the end of the pandemic to be heralded by grand announcements, parades in the street, and ticker tape raining from the sky, we might need to rein in those expectations a bit. In fact, it may help to hold a more realistic idea of what the ending might look like (i.e., a whole lot less clear-cut). And it may be important to practice accepting some uncertainty as a necessary part of this process. Remember, uncertainty is a totally normal (and essentially unavoidable) part of life. 

While we cannot say for certain how or when things will end, there are a few things we know will help in the meantime.

1. Maintain your connection with others. Regardless of whether you’ve been doing so all along or not, it’s never a bad time to reach out and connect (virtually) with those you care about when you’re feeling worried or stressed.

2. Maintain healthy amounts of self-care. We are big proponents of eating healthy and exercising when it comes to giving your mental health a boost. While this may be hard with your favorite gyms closed, or no easy access to a safe outdoor environment, it’s always an option to do an online workout routine at home or come up with one of your own. (For example, Sandra’s children love playing the role of workout instructor!)

3. Maintain a sense of positivity. This may be particularly hard when you’re feeling stressed. But the more you attempt to focus on the positive aspects of your current lifestyle (taking up new hobbies, having more time with family, enjoying virtual hang-outs with friends, etc.), the easier it becomes to focus on and savor these positive experiences.   

Just remember, while it may be tempting to worry about uncontrollable or unpredictable aspects of this pandemic, and while it may feel like productive behavior, it rarely is. Worrying or stressing is more likely to keep you feeling down than it is to help you cope or come up with solutions. Another thing to remember: We will get through this together, one way or another. Perhaps the best advice of all is to let go of the feeling that you must control an uncontrollable situation.